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Safety & Security (Prepare and Be Aware)

This Is an Emergency

emergency communications systems 

PHOTO COURTESY OF TOWSON UNIVERSITY

When the weather service says there is a tornado in your area, you must use your emergency communications systems to protect the campus community. You may have only a few seconds to communicate the emergency to students, faculty and staff on campus — as well as members of the campus community that happen to be off campus.

How will you communicate with all of these people? What will you tell them? If you plan to tell them to go inside and shelter in place, have you shown them how to do that?

Get the Basics Right

At Towson University in Towson, MD, for instance, the University Police Department communicates primarily by text and email, using mass notification software developed by the university’s IT department. Another primary tool is the university website.

A host of additional tools support the primary systems. All have pre-set messages for different types of events. No one needs to craft a message when an emergency erupts.

“The phone systems in our buildings enable us to announce emergencies over the speakers in desktop telephones in individual offices,” says the university’s Deputy Chief of Police Joe Herring. “We communicate by banner overrides on the computer system. We also use social media and pump messages out over our network to electronic displays. The displays are new for us, but we plan to add them all over campus.

“We have built in a lot of redundancy because every communication medium isn’t available everywhere. If you don’t have your smartphone or if the battery is dead, you won’t receive texts or emails when we send them.”

Herring adds that the university has an external public address system useful in serious emergencies as well, but it is used sparingly.

According to Herring, the university IT department is working to consolidate all of these tools into a system that will send emergency messages over all of these emergency communication tools with one command.

Officers in Towson’s police department communicate with each other using radios. In an emergency, the campus police can use their radios to talk to members of the university’s President’s Council, facility and maintenance people, and people in other departments on campus.

The university police department organizes drills to practice these emergency communication techniques, as well as the responses they call for. “We conduct a series of operational readiness drills at different facilities around campus every semester,” Herring says. “We do one or two shelter-in-place drills each semester. We also do fire drills every semester.

“The drills are very structured and designed to activate different components in the emergency response system — at different response levels. After a drill, we review, identify problems and tweak the response.”

Thinking Outside the Box

There is a lot to think about to get the basics of emergency communications right. There are also a lot of things beyond the basics that you have to get right.

“Communication is one of the most important factors in campus security and safety, and you have to think outside of the box about emergency communication,” says Randy Braverman, who serves on the Illinois Anti-terrorism Task Force School and Campus Training Program. He has taught security courses about college and university security for seven years.

Part of thinking outside of the box is to make sure you are communicating with all of the groups of people with a need to know and providing training and drills for everyone, especially those that might be off campus on the days you drill. Then there is the news media. Making sure the media has the correct story is critical to emergency communications.

More: the communication technology and data used in an emergency communication system needs regular maintenance and reliable backups.

Who Are You Going to Call?

“You have to let parents know what is going on during an emergency,” Braverman says. “You’ll need their email addresses and phone numbers so you can email and text them.

“It’s also important to tell parents where to look for information in the event of an emergency. Email and text messages sent to parents should provide URLs of sites the university will use to provide updated information.”

You should probably specify a couple of sites. If you use the school’s main website, what happens if it goes down? Is there a backup site? Social media services like Twitter and Facebook could come in handy as backup sources.

Of course, you’ll need to call the police, too, or the fire department, or both. Make sure the lines of communication with campus police or town police are open and working. Invite them to help with your drills and review your
procedures.

“Police and firefighters can also benefit from maps of the campus,” Braverman says. “Keep these kinds of visual communications in mind.”

Faculty Training

Unlike the faculty at K–12 schools, college and university faculty members may not spend a lot of time on campus and may miss emergency response drills. Adjunct professors, for instance, show up for their classes and might schedule office hours one afternoon a week. Other faculty members spend more time on campus, but frequently go elsewhere to research, write, speak and attend conferences.

“You have to make sure that everyone is trained to respond to a campus shooter, a fire, an extreme weather event or other kind of emergency,” says Braverman. “Make training videos for the faculty and post them on the campus website. To watch a video, the faculty member goes to the website and enters a code.”

Training videos should provide information about what to expect in different kinds of emergencies. Here are some examples of what an emergency response training video might cover:

  • If there’s a fire, a distinctive siren will go off. Here’s what it sounds like. If there’s a tornado warning, a different siren will go off. Here’s what that sounds like.
  • If you have mass notification capability, the video will explain how to sign up for emergency texts, email and voicemail, noting that these communications will always announce an emergency.
  • If the campus has an external public address system, cover it in the video.
  • You should also explain the specific meaning of any directions these emergency communications may provide. What is a hard lockdown? What is a soft lockdown? What does shelter-in-place mean?

The News Media

Another part of emergency communications involves putting the facts out to the news media, Braverman says. When an event begins, the media typically get information from witnesses, often through social media. These witnesses are not trained observers, like the police. As a result, the first television and radio reports may be wrong.

If the person with the gun is on the east side of campus, and the television interviews with a witness who places the gunshots on the west side of the campus, people will flow east toward the gunman.

It’s up to the police and university personnel to collect the facts, get them right and agree on a strategy for informing the media.

Maintain It and Back It Up

Technology develops bugs. Software crashes. Emergency communication technology can crash as soon as an emergency erupts... unless you check it constantly, rebooting when necessary and calling IT for maintenance when necessary.

No matter how regularly and well you maintain your equipment, it could still go down just before or during an emergency. You must back up the technology as well as the data — the prepared messages and contact information. The backup should probably be off campus, and perhaps out of the area. A subscription to a cloud-based mass notification system might work. There are instances when colleges in different parts of the country backed up each other’s systems.

Is That Everything?

No. That’s not everything. Something’s missing. Can you think of it?

The article made no mention of visitors on campus. How do you communicate with them? Electronic signs and public address systems will help. Do you have those systems? If not, is there another way?

And what about emergency call stations with direct phone lines to the campus police, flashing lights and video cameras? These are also important emergency communication tools not covered here.

Get the idea? You have missed something. Everyone always misses something. You need to go back over your emergency communications technology, messaging and planning again and again, looking for holes. You won’t have time to fix the problem during the emergency.

This article originally appeared in the February 2014 issue of College Planning & Management.

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